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New Music Circle closes out with 'Vox Balaenae'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2011 -The New Music Circle's 52nd season of presenting contemporary, cutting edge music comes to a close this Saturday with a 7:30 p.m. performance by Trio Kinsella at the Kranzberg Arts Center.

This final concert of the 2010-11 series encompasses pieces that were written over four decades. The highlight of the evening is expected to be a performance of Pulitzer Prize winning composer George Crumb's 1971 composition, "Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)." The selections will also include a 1980s work by Joseph Schwanter, former composer in residence for the St. Louis Symphony and a 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner; and Joseph Corigliano, who won the Pulitzer in 2001.

Saturday's concert moves up to the present with a work by Narong Prangcharoen of Thailand and recorded by Trio Kinsella for release in 2012. It also includes the world premiere of a composition written specifically for the group - "Falling Through Infinity" by Nicholas Omiccioli.

The wide range of time covered by these selections may seem a bit incongruous for the New Music Circle's philosophy about presenting music. Over the past 52, years the focus of NMC has always been to keep the music fresh, interesting and thought provoking.

In recent years, the trend has also moved strongly toward improvisational music. But all the music for Saturday's program is scored. According to Jonathan Borja, who plays flute in the Trio, that indicates, despite a trend toward increasing improvisation in contemporary music, a solid tradition - and a continuing, resonating influence - in the world of contemporary music composition.

"I think this program shows there is, and will always be, a continuing tradition in modern music," Borja (right) said during a recent phone interview from his Kansas City home. "With Crumb's work and Schwantner's piece from the 1980s, and also a composition by Corigliano, we have a balance with the very current work by Narong - and the brand new composition written for us by Nicholas (Omiccioli). I am really pleased with the program."

The members of Trio Kinsella, Borja, cellist Ben Gitter and pianist Brendan Kinsella, first met at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, when they were all enrolled in the Music Program. They soon found common ground musically as they played together in various groups at the University.

"All three of us went to UMKC and got our doctorates together," explains Borja. "We were all in the chamber music program as well as members of the school's New Music Ensemble, so we ended up playing together in various combinations with other musicians fairly often. That led to us deciding that we should work together as a trio."

One of the first concerts performed by Trio Kinsella featured works by George Crumb, including "Vox Balaenae." And that particular work seems to have become a thread for the Trio, leading to an invitation to perform at the 2009 Heidelberg New Music Festival in Ohio and, eventually. to Saturday's New Music Circle concert.

"We actually had the opportunity to perform the piece at the Heidelberg Festival for George Crumb," states Borja. "That was definitely a special concert for us. Then we performed it again at Principia College in Illinois last year, and someone from the New Music Circle organization was there. So that led directly to our performance for NMC this Saturday at the Kranzberg. It's our New Music Circle debut."

Crumb, who has won a Grammy as well as the Pulitzer, has written a number of acclaimed works over the years, including "Echoes of Time and the River," "Black Angels" and "Ancient Voice of Children," is still probably best know for "Voice of the Whale." As someone who has performed the piece frequently, Borja thinks mimicking of the sound of whales in the way that draws the listener into another sonic realm is part of that appeal.

"It's become something of a modern classic," states Borja. "And it's interesting to see the audience's reaction change from the beginning of the piece to the end. Listeners tend to get a little uncomfortable with the music at the beginning, because there are sounds that they're not used to hearing. But by the final movement, there's a real sense that everyone in the audience is very much into the music."

Borja also thinks the fact that Crumb calls for the musicians to wear masks during the performance and also specifies lighting to simulate the undersea world also is part of the appeal. But the masks also present some humorous issues for the Trio.

"All three of us wear glasses, so it can definitely be an uncomfortable situation at times," he says with a laugh. "But as we've done the piece again, we've learned to compensate and figure out how to make the masks comfortable - and still retain enough peripheral vision to keep eye contact with each other."

In terms of the newest works on the program, the Trio members all have personal relationships with the composers, Prangcharoen and Omiccioli, through UMKC.

"We met Narong when he was at UMKC," says Borja. "He's the most popular composer in Thailand and is doing some great things that connect the Asian musical tradition with western instruments. And Nicholas, who is also studying at UMKC, wrote his new work specifically for the three of us. This will be the world premiere Saturday night."

Saturday's performance is also a bit of a reunion for the Trio, according to Borja.

"I'm the only one who is still in Kansas City," notes Borja. "Ben is now in Canada, and Brendan is teaching at Texas Pan American. So this is really a nice way to get together again for us. We're all looking forward to rehearsals and the concert."

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer. 

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.